In the last 20 years oenology has broken through to a detailed knowledge of wine making. But has it really improved the making of wine or has this new science opened a Pandora's box of practices it no longer controls?
One of the most ancient of these has been studied, measured, dosed and legislated to allow limits that approach legalized poisoning of the public. According to Henri Messerschmitt, editor and publisher of the Encyclopedie Permanente d'Agriculture Biologique, the norms established by the World Health Organization place the limits of adult daily absorption of sulfurous anhydride (sulfur dioxide, or SO2) at 35 milligrams.
Leaving aside the sulfur dioxide urbanites breathe in with their polluted air, what is one to make of French national limits of 225 milligrams a liter for red wine and 300 for white wine? Other countries' limits are about the same and Common Market rules, which will not be in effect for at least another year, run only about 50 milligrams lower than current French regulations.
At this rate, even a moderate drinker of wine (say half a liter a day) is exposed to up to three or four times the daily maximum dose. If your consumption is a bottle a day, you may be taking in 5 to 6.5 times as much as WHO estimates your system can cope with.
Sulfurous anhydride destroys vitamin B-1 thiamine), which is necessary to digestion. Too much sulfur oxide is known to cause lesions of the stomach, intestines, liver and even the brain.
In massive doses it is immediately fatal, as hundreds of dead in volcanic eruptions in Java prove. They were not hit by boulders thrown up by the volcano or buried in volcanic ash but asphyxiated by noxious gas, the result of superheated sulfur in contact with oxygen in the air – SO2.
Sulfurous anhydride serves as a bactericidal, stabilizing and clarifying agent in wine. Yet it is perfectly possible to make good wine without a trace of SO2. It suffices to keep all bottling equipment scrupulously clean so that no bacteria enter the wine in the first place.
The use of sulfur dioxide in wine goes back a long way – at least to Roman times, as far as written records go. A comforting thought, until you think of certain other Roman customs.
Wealthy families could afford the latest in tableware, made of pure lead. Saturnism, or lead poisoning, is known to have been a contributing cause to the degeneration of the Roman patrician class and the decline of the empire. Let's not carry the comparison too far, but we can perhaps admit that, for all our science, we may not be much brighter than the Romans.
Is there any way to avoid wines with amounts of sulfur dioxide in excess of WHO standards? Yes, if you learn to recognize the sharp, almost painful sensation in your upper nose when you sniff in deeply over a glass of wine containing too much volatile SO2. As you swallow a mouthful it will go down the back of your throat with a burning sensation that you will feel again when it reaches your stomach.
In its combined form, sulfur dioxide leaves a smell called mercaptan by oenologists and crotte de poule by winegrowing peasants. As the peasant formula indicates, it smells exactly like a none-too-clean chicken coop, and it completely masks any other qualities the wine may have.
If you would like to buy wines without sulfur dioxide or containing very low amounts of it, try vins biologiques (organic wines).